How to nail the UCAS personal statement: From generic quotes to irrelevant work experience, an expert reveals the common mistakes YOUR child could be making
- Education expert shares tips on writing best UCAS personal statement possible
- The personal statement allows students to distinguish themselves from others
- Advice includes skipping generic quotes and avoiding irrelevant experience
The UCAS deadline is just around the corner, but it is not too late to help your child submit the best application possible.
An education expert has revealed the most common mistakes students make when it comes to writing their personal statement, in the hope that your child might avoid them.
Consultant Edd Williams, author of the book Is Your School Lying To You?, explained the 4,000 word personal statement is crucial as it offers universities a way to distinguish between applications that can otherwise look very similar, with almost identical grades and often glowing recommendations from teachers.
It is the only part of the application that is truly personal, allowing students to show who they are and what they can offer, rather than being a reductive list of grades that only tell a part of a story.
Here, Edd identifies the most common pitfalls – including generic quotes and irrelevant work experience – that you should avoid in order to transform your child’s statement from humdrum to extraordinary, bolstering their chances of winning a place at the university of their dreams.
But remember, the deadline is 15 January so be sure to act fast…
An education expert has revealed the most common mistakes students make when it comes to writing their personal statement, in the hope that your child might avoid them. Stock image
Spell check is your friend
Sounds obvious but spelling, punctuation and grammar are the quickest and easiest things to check and the quickest and easiest way to undermine everything else they’ve written if they fail to do so.
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Too often I’ve seen students encouraged to lean on greater minds to lend profundity to a statement – this is now an outmoded technique but the advice persists.
Don’t squander the space using quotes that the tutors could read anywhere else, and probably have done several thousand times, most likely in other personal statements.
They want to know about your teen and what they have to say, not what someone else thinks or has to say. Be original and authentic.
Edd Williams, pictured, explained the personal statement is a crucial part of the application process as it offers universities an chance to distinguish between students
Irrelevant, contextless thoughts
Often they’ll be told to list accomplishments or experiences, but unless it’s proven to be formative or relevant to the choice of course or informed how and why they came to be applying, leave it out.
Listing countries visited, work experience placements, films that changed their life etc is not fun to read unless it speaks to a larger truth.
Give it context: why is it relevant to the course; what did they learn from it, either about themselves and their goals or the subject, and so on. Make it mean more than just something they once did.
The personal statement is an opportunity for your teen to sell themselves, but it’s also an opportunity for the reader to get an idea of who they are.
Encourage them to write from the heart and avoid words they wouldn’t use in real life (but stop short of using slang!).
If they’re thumbing through a thesaurus looking up obscure adjectives they’ve taken a wrong turn.
Firstly, there’s a risk they get it wrong and misuse a word and secondly, if they have to interview and the curtains don’t match the carpet when they speak in real life it’s going to put a question mark over their head.
Using a spell check before submitting might sound obvious but it is sometimes overlooked by candidates, Edd explained. Poor spelling and grammar can undermine the whole essay
Every letter counts. Unless something actively enhances the essay and serves the narrative they are trying to create – bin it.
As you read through the essay try to apply the shrug test: if there’s any part of you that thinks that someone who doesn’t know your teen would read through this and shrug- scrap it.
Cliches and hackneyed phrases
Almost too many to mention but speak to any of their peers and you can pretty much guarantee at least a few of the following sentences will appear in their essays, ‘The world today is’, ‘Ever since I was young’, ‘I’ve always been fascinated by’ and so on.
Edd’s top tip: DON’T be fixated on the myth of the ‘all rounder’
The single biggest lie our students are told when writing their essay is that universities are looking for students who have done a bit of everything.
This is a fallacy, as they are of course looking for well rounded people, but also people who show potential or aptitude and ability specifically in one thing, who are committed to the course and to seeing it through.
With a drop out rate of around 7-8 per cent universities want a demonstrable long standing interest in the field and everything in the essay should help sell to that narrative in some way.
If they’re applying to be a vet, the fact they once played Joseph in a school nativity, or were on the 3rd string hockey team is less compelling than an interest in animals or summers volunteering at shelters etc.
Being well rounded is not the same thing as being an all rounder, they should play to their strengths and stay on message, by trying to be all things to all people they risk disappointing everyone.
‘Passion/passionate’ and ‘fuelled my desire to X’ are another two perennial offenders.
They are a waste of characters and it’s the linguistic equivalent of a place holder. It says nothing and doesn’t help sell them. Find a better way of telling that story and make it interesting for the reader.
No one objects to the ideas, just tell that same story but with more interesting language; make it personal, make it emotive.
Unsubstantiated lies and bragging
Selling yourself is not the same thing as making wild, unsubstantiated claims. Show, don’t tell. People want evidence and facts, not unsupported self congratulatory whooping.
Lying and more importantly plagiarism – UCAS has very good software aimed at stopping people copying, is not worth it. They WILL get caught. Lies are easily disproved, particularly around certain experiences, speaking a language, a book they might claim to love etc.
If they don’t speak the language or didn’t finish the book, don’t suggest otherwise: if they get quizzed on it at interview – there’s no way back from that.
Too risky, they don’t know who will read the statement, even if the reader doesn’t dislike the joke, is it worth the risk and the space used? Better to be slightly more conformist than throw it all away with a misjudged line.
Accentuate the positives
Edd’s book offers more top tips and a comprehensive strategy on how to help order your teens’ academic and career choices
Don’t let them focus on things that didn’t go their way. This is a sales document so sell and frame those experiences in a positive light.
If they are applying for a science course and they are talking about an experiment they conducted that trashed their hypothesis? That’s great! Focus on what that taught them, be it a personal skill such as resilience, or something more academic.
Either way it’s possible to frame experiences that didn’t go to plan in a positive way.
Take a good long look at their statement. Stress test it against these parameters, sometimes even subtle tweaks or re-framing arguments can be an invaluable exercise, and the essay will be the stronger for it. Remember getting it right can be the difference between acceptance to their 1st choice uni or their 4th choice. Good luck!
Edd Williams is the careers and academic consultant behind Edducan.com and the author of the book ‘Is your school lying to you? Get the career you want. Get the life you deserve.’ available now via Amazon or Ortus Press at £11.99
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